The Myth of Black-on-Black Violence

As we head into another long, hot summer, the media -- and black folks -- need to retire this loaded term.


This year’s Black History Month was a particularly bloody one in Shelby County, S.C. Sergio Leary, Ja’cole Wilson, Karon Barrow and Leon Thurman Jr., all young people in their 20s, were all shot dead, according to local news reports.

The Shelby Star’s analysis of the burst of violence, hit on all the usual crime reporting clichés: ”black,” ”at-risk youth,” ”subcultures that don’t value” life. And then, there’s the clincher. ”Despite overall crime numbers falling in recent years, black-on-black [emphasis added] violence remains a prevalent issue,” the newspaper reported.

You can expect to hear these key phrases on a local television news report near you as temperatures–and tempers–rise this summer. Black clergy like Al Sharpton, prominent black thinkers like Kevin Powell, and writers at black journals like the Urban Politico will shake their heads at this ”black” scourge, self-flagellating that ”we gotta do better.”

Of course, any loss of life is cause to scream from the mountaintops. But explaining the tragedies by using loaded phrases like ”black-on-black” violence is dangerously wrong. First, in a country that is essentially still segregated (and not necessarily by black people’s choice) what race do you expect for both victim and perpetrators to be? Language like ”black-on-black violence” effectively smacks a racial label on problems that are socioeconomic and thus the collective, moral responsibility of every American.

At this particular moment in our history, it is more important than ever to reject these kinds of racialized explanations. They are being used to slander public school children as incapable of learning; to deem affordable housing a hopeless cause. In gentrifying cities, ”black-on-black crime” is used as a weapon to encourage public policies that treat black people as blights on the new urban aesthetic. There is a moral imperative to challenge these assumptions.

Every. Single. Time.

”It’s as though there is something defective about black culture and moderate income, and low-income, working-class kids and families live in different worlds,” said the University of Illinois geographer David Wilson, who traced the origins of the term in the early 1980s in his brilliant book, Inventing Black-on-Black Violence (Syracuse University Press).